- Martin Genetsch (Author)
The Texture of Identity: The Fiction of MG Vassanji, Neil Bissoondath, and Rohinton Mistry. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sam Knowles
In this monograph, Martin Genetsch addresses the thorny and often-discussed issue of Canadian multiculturalism in the context of three authors whose work, he argues, must be treated as solely and representatively Canadian. His introduction establishes the framework for his study, asserting that contemporary discourses of “globalization” fail to take sufficient notice of community-centred cultural interactions: analyses of M.G. Vassanji, Neil Bissoondath, and Rohinton Mistry focus on their attitudes towards the “here” of Canada and the “there” of their respective countries of origin. Genetsch’s text follows just such a binary structure, although he states that he does not wish to imply an incompatible dichotomy: “in an increasingly multicultural Canada ‘there’ informs ‘here,’ and vice versa. . . . ‘Here’ and ‘there’ must be seen dialectically.”
Genetsch clears space for his argument with a well-informed overview of the history of multiculturalism in Canada, in which he opposes arguments such as Charles Taylor’s on the recognition of difference as “a moral [and] a vital human need” with opinions closer to Bissoondath’s trenchant criticisms of the celebration of cultural diversity. However, the section on postcolonial theory which follows highlights a flaw in Genetsch’s otherwise useful work: his knowledge of an array of postcolonial criticism, though impressive, is dated—none of his sources were published after 2001. As a result, he does not engage with the excellent recent contributions to debates on postcolonialism from the likes of Elleke Boehmer, John McLeod, and Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (whose earlier work Genetsch does reference), connections with which would have strengthened his work.
When focusing on specific authors, though, Genetsch is on much firmer ground, and the rest of the book—comprising three author-led chapters on Vassanji, Bissoondath, and Mistry—emphasizes his literary-critical expertise. In the first of these chapters, for example, Genetsch employs incisive textual analysis to demonstrate how Vassanji, in No New Land, “illustrates that what to the racist looks like culturally ingrained laziness is in fact socially instilled depression.” This illuminating line of thought, probing the boundaries and fractures of Canadian multiculturalism, enables Genetsch to make a persuasive case for Vassanji—and, by implication, Bissoondath and Mistry—as Canadian, precisely because of the healthy scepticism offered on subjects such as immigration, assimilation, and belonging.
He is careful, however, to avoid homogenising the authors’ responses: moving into the second author-led chapter, one success of Genetsch’s argument lies in the clarity with which he delineates the difference between Vassanji’s “balanced analysis” of the Canadian diaspora and Bissoondath’s “ironic reversal.” In The Worlds Within Her, a character’s ties to her Canadian “home” are far stronger than those to her country of origin, as “the cognitive matrix of Caribbean culture remains alien to [her]”: diaspora becomes “a relative concept contingent on the definition of what constitutes home.” Genetsch sides with Bissoondath, and concludes the chapter by raising the question of postcolonialism as “a problematic rather than a term of radical empowerment.”
Genetsch takes this question into the final stage of his argument, an analysis of Mistry’s work that revolves around a particularly insightful reading of the short story "Swimming Lessons." So perceptive is this analysis, in fact, that Genetsch undermines his own argument somewhat: in paying close attention to the ways that Mistry brings together the worlds of Toronto and Bombay in his story’s “oscillation between ‘there’ and ‘here,’” Genetsch’s own idea of a separation between cultures begins to dissolve. In a short conclusion, reiterating his understanding of Canadian multicultural fiction, Genetsch re-states his “observation that the immigrant imagination is dichotomous”; I was left with the impression, though, that such binarism was at odds with the richness of Genetsch’s subject-matter.
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MLA: Knowles, Sam. New Multiculturalisms. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 134 - 135)
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